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Lean On Me
S.L. Price
June 20, 2005
Since their school days in Michigan, Tom Izzo and Steve Mariucci have dreamed together, schemed together, pushed each other to coaching heights--and always returned to their roots
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June 20, 2005

Lean On Me

Since their school days in Michigan, Tom Izzo and Steve Mariucci have dreamed together, schemed together, pushed each other to coaching heights--and always returned to their roots

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WHEN HE goes home to Iron Mountain these days, Steve Mariucci knows to expect certain things. There'll be a few more FOR RENT signs downtown. His mother, Dee, will get tired more easily; his dad, Ray, will talk about the squirrels that left the bocce courts a mess. At night Steve will sleep in his old bedroom with the photos and the boyhood souvenirs, untouched since the day he left. Someone will joke about the next Lions-Packers game. And people will ask about Tommy. Perhaps, if they're too young to know better, they'll even ask Mariucci if he is Tom Izzo. � It's understandable. For decades in Iron Mountain they've been Tommy-and-Steve, inseparable, as if two men could somehow share a heartbeat, which, to hear them talk, isn't too much of a stretch. When Izzo speaks offhandedly of "the way Mariucci and I have lived our life" or Mariucci talks about "the ambition we're living," it comes off as sweet and slightly freakish: Here sit two American alpha males, Me Decade products with multimillion-dollar contracts and egos weighty enough to crush a Buick, and they're divvying up dreams, success--their very identities--as they would an order of french fries.

Mariucci is the coach of the Detroit Lions. Izzo is the basketball coach at Michigan State. It's unlikely enough that a town of 8,000 would produce two high-profile coaches, much less two the same age, much less two who are best friends, but that this onetime mining hub on Michigan's Upper Peninsula did so for home-state teams remains a source of wonder. Izzo turned 50 in January and Mariucci will do so on Nov. 4, and as always on this visit in May, Mariucci bumps into old friends who love talking about how Tommy-and-Steve made it out together, made it big together and now give back together. But it's not that simple. Mariucci motors past the A&W drive-in, the Premiere Center banquet hall: every place a reminder. He points to Central School. Izzo went there through eighth grade. Mariucci attended Immaculate Conception.

"I hated him," Mariucci says. "Basketball, fifth grade and sixth grade, we were always competing against each other. The first time IC played Central, we beat them, and these fifth-grade girls [from Central] were there saying, 'Well, we didn't have Iz-zo.' I'm like, What's an Izzo?" Mariucci drives a few blocks while telling the story, far enough to confirm that you haven't lived until you've heard an NFL coach imitate a snotty fifth-grade girl. He turns onto West A Street and slows in front of a nondescript bungalow. "This was his house, right here," Mariucci says. "The next time we played, I learned what an Izzo was: He was dribbling behind his back, doing lefthanded layups. The rivalry was on."

Mariucci drives down to the town's stadium, where the two boys--Steve at quarterback, Tommy at tailback and linebacker--co-captained the Iron Mountain High football team. A few years ago they raised money to help spruce up the place. But it wasn't their first refurbishing effort: In 1973, at the end of their senior year, Mariucci and Izzo had the bright idea of recruiting kids to paint a wall behind the stadium bleachers. But their classmates spent that week before graduation sleeping, gathering at hunting camps, drinking up on Millie Hill. Tommy and Steve--"nerds," as Mariucci's dad labeled them--painted the 30-foot-high wall themselves.

Mariucci passes the Pine Mountain ski jump, where he and Izzo spent summer nights running the 374 steps until they heaved. Then he drives past a baseball field. "We played Little League against each other," he says. "Once I was on third, showing off, and he was catcher, and he fired the ball to the third baseman and got my ass out. I hated his guts."

Mariucci smiles: It's fun to indulge the feeling even now. The two were so evenly matched, so similar in their intensity. Along with the friendship, their competitiveness has survived everything--time and distance, marriage and kids. They still measure themselves against each other; for nearly 30 years Mariucci has kept a ledger detailing their two incomes. ("Nineteen seventy-eight: I blew him right out of the water," he says in his office one day, finding the entry within seconds. "I was making $8,600, and he was making $3,500.") Until 2003, when Mariucci's new five-year, $25 million deal dwarfed Izzo's $2 million annual salary, they were never more than $30,000 apart.

But that's just money. Mention how far he and Izzo have come to accomplish so much, and Mariucci's mood shifts. "I haven't done anything," he says under his breath, and then he says it again louder. He went 57--39 in six seasons as coach of the San Francisco 49ers, making it to the NFC Championship Game in 1997. In '02 Mariucci went 10--6 with the 49ers and got fired anyway. In his two years with the Lions he has gone 11--21. He's not the hot young coach anymore. "You've got to win it all," he says.

He stops in front of an empty lot on Smith Street. "I grew up here," he says. "I remember riding my bike, four years old. There used to be a house right there. It's gone now." He resumes driving.

"Do you want to have a job and tenure and go through the motions for 35 years and retire?" he asks. "Or do you want to hit the top? And if you hit the top, what does it mean--and if you don't, what does that mean? When you're obsessed, the only thing that's really satisfying is hitting the top, then doing it again."

Izzo has hit the top. No current coach can match his record of four Final Four appearances in the last six years. When he won the 2000 national championship in just his fifth season as head coach--faster than John Wooden, Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski--Mariucci was there at the Hoosier Dome, teary-eyed, as Izzo cut down the nets. Obviously, Mariucci is told, you felt great pride--

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